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  Psychological Science in the Public Interest14(1) 4  –58© The Author(s) 2013Reprints and permission: 10.1177/1529100612453266 Corresponding Author:  John Dunlosky, Psychology, Kent State University, Kent, OH 44242 E-mail: Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology  John Dunlosky 1 , Katherine A. Rawson 1 , Elizabeth J. Marsh 2 , Mitchell J. Nathan 3 , and Daniel T. Willingham 4 1 Department of Psychology, Kent State University; 2 Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University; 3 Department of Educational Psychology, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, and Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin–Madison; and 4 Department of Psychology, University of Virginia Summary Many students are being left behind by an educational system that some people believe is in crisis. Improving educational outcomes will require efforts on many fronts, but a central premise of this monograph is that one part of a solution involves helping students to better regulate their learning through the use of effective learning techniques. Fortunately, cognitive and educational psychologists have been developing and evaluating easy-to-use learning techniques that could help students achieve their learning goals. In this monograph, we discuss 10 learning techniques in detail and offer recommendations about their relative utility. We selected techniques that were expected to be relatively easy to use and hence could be adopted by many students. Also, some techniques (e.g., highlighting and rereading) were selected because students report relying heavily on them, which makes it especially important to examine how well they work. The techniques include elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, summarization, highlighting (or underlining), the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, rereading, practice testing, distributed practice, and interleaved practice. To offer recommendations about the relative utility of these techniques, we evaluated whether their benefits generalize across four categories of variables: learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and criterion tasks. Learning conditions include aspects of the learning environment in which the technique is implemented, such as whether a student studies alone or with a group. Student characteristics include variables such as age, ability, and level of prior knowledge. Materials vary from simple concepts to mathematical problems to complicated science texts. Criterion tasks include different outcome measures that are relevant to student achievement, such as those tapping memory, problem solving, and comprehension. We attempted to provide thorough reviews for each technique, so this monograph is rather lengthy. However, we also wrote the monograph in a modular fashion, so it is easy to use. In particular, each review is divided into the following sections:1. General description of the technique and why it should work 2. How general are the effects of this technique? 2a. Learning conditions 2b. Student characteristics 2c. Materials 2d. Criterion tasks3. Effects in representative educational contexts4. Issues for implementation5. Overall assessment  Improving Student Achievement 5 Introduction If simple techniques were available that teachers and students could use to improve student learning and achievement, would you be surprised if teachers were not being told about these techniques and if many students were not using them? What if students were instead adopting ineffective learning techniques that undermined their achievement, or at least did not improve it? Shouldn’t they stop using these techniques and begin using ones that are effective? Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruc-tion for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement with little added effort. Also, some learning tech-niques that are popular and often used by students are rela-tively ineffective. One potential reason for the disconnect  between research on the efficacy of learning techniques and their use in educational practice is that because so many tech-niques are available, it would be challenging for educators to sift through the relevant research to decide which ones show  promise of efficacy and could feasibly be implemented by stu-dents (Pressley, Goodchild, Fleet, Zajchowski, & Evans, 1989).Toward meeting this challenge, we explored the efficacy of 10 learning techniques (listed in Table 1) that students could use to improve their success across a wide variety of content domains. 1  The learning techniques we consider here were cho-sen on the basis of the following criteria. We chose some techniques (e.g., self-testing, distributed practice) because an initial survey of the literature indicated that they could improve student success across a wide range of conditions. Other tech-niques (e.g., rereading and highlighting) were included  because students report using them frequently. Moreover, stu-dents are responsible for regulating an increasing amount of their learning as they progress from elementary grades through middle school and high school to college. Lifelong learners also need to continue regulating their own learning, whether it takes place in the context of postgraduate education, the workplace, the development of new hobbies, or recreational activities.Thus, we limited our choices to techniques that could be implemented by students without assistance (e.g., without requiring advanced technologies or extensive materials that would have to be prepared by a teacher). Some training may  be required for students to learn how to use a technique with fidelity, but in principle, students should be able to use the techniques without supervision. We also chose techniques for which a sufficient amount of empirical evidence was available to support at least a preliminary assessment of potential effi-cacy. Of course, we could not review all the techniques that meet these criteria, given the in-depth nature of our reviews, and these criteria excluded some techniques that show much  promise, such as techniques that are driven by advanced technologies.Because teachers are most likely to learn about these tech-niques in educational psychology classes, we examined how some educational-psychology textbooks covered them (Ormrod, 2008; Santrock, 2008; Slavin, 2009; Snowman, The review for each technique can be read independently of the others, and particular variables of interest can be easily compared across techniques. To foreshadow our final recommendations, the techniques vary widely with respect to their generalizability and promise for improving student learning. Practice testing and distributed practice received high utility assessments because they benefit learners of different ages and abilities and have been shown to boost students’ performance across many criterion tasks and even in educational contexts. Elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice received moderate utility assessments. The benefits of these techniques do generalize across some variables, yet despite their promise, they fell short of a high utility assessment because the evidence for their efficacy is limited. For instance, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation have not been adequately evaluated in educational contexts, and the benefits of interleaving have just begun to be systematically explored, so the ultimate effectiveness of these techniques is currently unknown. Nevertheless, the techniques that received moderate-utility ratings show enough promise for us to recommend their use in appropriate situations, which we describe in detail within the review of each technique. Five techniques received a low utility assessment: summarization, highlighting, the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, and rereading. These techniques were rated as low utility for numerous reasons. Summarization and imagery use for text learning have been shown to help some students on some criterion tasks, yet the conditions under which these techniques produce benefits are limited, and much research is still needed to fully explore their overall effectiveness. The keyword mnemonic is difficult to implement in some contexts, and it appears to benefit students for a limited number of materials and for short retention intervals. Most students report rereading and highlighting, yet these techniques do not consistently boost students’ performance, so other techniques should be used in their place (e.g., practice testing instead of rereading). Our hope is that this monograph will foster improvements in student learning, not only by showcasing which learning techniques are likely to have the most generalizable effects but also by encouraging researchers to continue investigating the most promising techniques. Accordingly, in our closing remarks, we discuss some issues for how these techniques could be implemented by teachers and students, and we highlight directions for future research.  6 Dunlosky et al. McCown, & Biehler, 2009; Sternberg & Williams, 2010; Woolfolk, 2007). Despite the promise of some of the tech-niques, many of these textbooks did not provide sufficient coverage, which would include up-to-date reviews of their efficacy and analyses of their generalizability and potential limitations. Accordingly, for all of the learning techniques listed in Table 1, we reviewed the literature to identify the gen-eralizability of their benefits across four categories of vari-ables—materials, learning conditions, student characteristics, and criterion tasks. The choice of these categories was inspired  by Jenkins’ (1979) model (for an example of its use in educa-tional contexts, see Marsh & Butler, in press), and examples of each category are presented in Table 2.  Materials  pertain to the specific content that students are expected to learn, remember, or comprehend.  Learning conditions  pertain to aspects of the context in which students are interacting with the to-be-learned materials. These conditions include aspects of the learning environment itself (e.g., noisiness vs. quietness in a classroom), but they largely pertain to the way in which a learning technique is implemented. For instance, a technique could be used only once or many times (a variable referred to as dosage ) when students are studying, or a technique could be used when students are either reading or listening to the to-be-learned materials.Any number of  student characteristics  could also influence the effectiveness of a given learning technique. For example, in comparison to more advanced students, younger students in early grades may not benefit from a technique. Students’ basic cognitive abilities, such as working memory capacity or gen-eral fluid intelligence, may also influence the efficacy of a given technique. In an educational context, domain knowledge refers to the valid, relevant knowledge a student brings to a lesson. Domain knowledge may be required for students to use some of the learning techniques listed in Table 1. For instance, Table 1.  Learning TechniquesTechniqueDescription1. Elaborative interrogationGenerating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true2. Self-explanationExplaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving3. SummarizationWriting summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts4. Highlighting/underliningMarking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading5. Keyword mnemonicUsing keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials6. Imagery for textAttempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening7. RereadingRestudying text material again after an initial reading8. Practice testingSelf-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material9. Distributed practiceImplementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time10. Interleaved practiceImplementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session Note. See text for a detailed description of each learning technique and relevant examples of their use. Table 2.  Examples of the Four Categories of Variables for GeneralizabilityMaterialsLearning conditions Student characteristics a Criterion tasksVocabularyAmount of practice (dosage)AgeCued recallTranslation equivalentsOpen- vs. closed-book practicePrior domain knowledgeFree recallLecture contentReading vs. listeningWorking memory capacityRecognitionScience definitionsIncidental vs. intentional learningVerbal abilityProblem solvingNarrative textsDirect instructionInterestsArgument developmentExpository textsDiscovery learningFluid intelligenceEssay writingMathematical conceptsRereading lags b MotivationCreation of portfoliosMapsKind of practice tests c Prior achievementAchievement testsDiagramsGroup vs. individual learningSelf-efficacyClassroom quizzes a Some of these characteristics are more state based (e.g., motivation) and some are more trait based (e.g., fluid intelligence); this distinction is relevant to the malleability of each characteristic, but a discussion of this dimension is beyond the scope of this article. b Learning condition is specific to rereading. c Learning condition is specific to practice testing.  Improving Student Achievement 7 the use of imagery while reading texts requires that students know the objects and ideas that the words refer to so that they can produce internal images of them. Students with some domain knowledge about a topic may also find it easier to use self-explanation and elaborative interrogation, which are two techniques that involve answering “why” questions about a  particular concept (e.g., “Why would particles of ice rise up within a cloud?”). Domain knowledge may enhance the bene-fits of summarization and highlighting as well. Nevertheless, although some domain knowledge will benefit students as they begin learning new content within a given domain, it is not a prerequisite for using most of the learning techniques.The degree to which the efficacy of each learning technique obtains across long retention intervals and generalizes across different criterion tasks  is of critical importance. Our reviews and recommendations are based on evidence, which typically  pertains to students’ objective performance on any number of criterion tasks. Criterion tasks (Table 2, rightmost column) vary with respect to the specific kinds of knowledge that they tap. Some tasks are meant to tap students’ memory for infor-mation (e.g., “What is operant conditioning?”), others are largely meant to tap students’ comprehension (e.g., “Explain the difference between classical conditioning and operant con-ditioning”), and still others are meant to tap students’ applica-tion of knowledge (e.g., “How would you apply operant conditioning to train a dog to sit down?”). Indeed, Bloom and colleagues divided learning objectives into six categories, from memory (or knowledge) and comprehension of facts to their application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (B. S. Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956; for an updated taxonomy, see L. W. Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).In discussing how the techniques influence criterion perfor-mance, we emphasize investigations that have gone beyond demonstrating improved memory for target material by mea-suring students’ comprehension, application, and transfer of knowledge. Note, however, that although gaining factual knowledge is not considered the only or ultimate objective of schooling, we unabashedly consider efforts to improve student retention of knowledge as essential for reaching other instruc-tional objectives; if one does not remember core ideas, facts, or concepts, applying them may prove difficult, if not impos-sible. Students who have forgotten principles of algebra will  be unable to apply them to solve problems or use them as a foundation for learning calculus (or physics, economics, or other related domains), and students who do not remember what operant conditioning is will likely have difficulties applying it to solve behavioral problems. We are not advocat-ing that students spend their time robotically memorizing facts; instead, we are acknowledging the important interplay  between memory for a concept on one hand and the ability to comprehend and apply it on the other.An aim of this monograph is to encourage students to use the appropriate learning technique (or techniques) to accom- plish a given instructional objective. Some learning techniques are largely focused on bolstering students’ memory for facts (e.g., the keyword mnemonic), others are focused more on improving comprehension (e.g., self-explanation), and yet others may enhance both memory and comprehension (e.g.,  practice testing). Thus, our review of each learning technique describes how it can be used, its effectiveness for producing long-term retention and comprehension, and its breadth of efficacy across the categories of variables listed in Table 2. Reviewing the Learning Techniques In the following series of reviews, we consider the available evidence for the efficacy of each of the learning techniques. Each review begins with a brief description of the technique and a discussion about why it is expected to improve student learning. We then consider generalizability (with respect to learning conditions, materials, student characteristics, and cri-terion tasks), highlight any research on the technique that has  been conducted in representative educational contexts, and address any identified issues for implementing the technique. Accordingly, the reviews are largely modular: Each of the 10 reviews is organized around these themes (with corresponding headers) so readers can easily identify the most relevant infor-mation without necessarily having to read the monograph in its entirety.At the end of each review, we provide an overall assess-ment for each technique in terms of its relatively utility—low, moderate, or high. Students and teachers who are not already doing so should consider using techniques designated as high utility , because the effects of these techniques are robust and generalize widely. Techniques could have been designated as low utility  or moderate utility  for any number of reasons. For instance, a technique could have been designated as low utility  because its effects are limited to a small subset of materials that students need to learn; the technique may be useful in some cases and adopted in appropriate contexts, but, relative to the other techniques, it would be considered low in utility  because of its limited generalizability. A technique could also receive a low- or moderate-utility rating if it showed promise, yet insufficient evidence was available to support confidence in assigning a higher utility assessment. In such cases, we encourage researchers to further explore these techniques within educational settings, but students and teachers may want to use caution before adopting them widely. Most impor-tant, given that each utility assessment could have been assigned for a variety of reasons, we discuss the rationale for a given assessment at the end of each review.Finally, our intent was to conduct exhaustive reviews of the literature on each learning technique. For techniques that have been reviewed extensively (e.g., distributed practice), however, we relied on previous reviews and supplemented them with any research that appeared after they had been pub-lished. For many of the learning techniques, too many articles have been published to cite them all; therefore, in our discus-sion of most of the techniques, we cite a subset of relevant articles.
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